What we can learn from Nepali orphans

IMG_1171.JPG In January, I spent two weeks with the kids at Ama Ghar, a home for underprivileged children* in Kathmandu Valley. It's a narrow four-story red brick building off of a busy two-lane road, and it houses 38 children whose parents are dead or debilitated from physical and mental illness. Many of them come from remote villages that are a full day's walk from the nearest road; communities without electricity that have high illiteracy rates.

Materially, the kids at Ama Ghar have little beyond bare necessities. Their toys are soccer balls made of rubber bands and old car tires. In the mornings they wash their hair and brush their teeth at a cold water tap outdoors, and after school they play with their half-exploded imitation Mizuno volleyball near the neighbor's pigsty until the sun goes down. Most nights, they do their homework under a single solar-powered backup lightbulb because of scheduled electrical outages, before going to sleep in tiny rooms crammed with second-hand bunk beds.

The most surprising thing about these kids, though, is not their living conditions. It's their attitude. These are really good kids. Generally speaking, they don't cheat, steal, complain, sneak off, or flake on their chores. During an eight-hour field trip to a Hindu temple on the other side of the Valley, the children kept tabs on each other without being told to do so, waiting patiently for the adults as they bargained for potatoes on the side of the street. Not one child complained about being hungry or needing to use the bathroom. Like a tight-knit family, they hugged each other often and shared everything without selfishness. The children all studied hard at school, like their lives depended on it — probably because their lives really do depend on it. As Bonnie Ellison, the resident manager, told me: "It's not easy out there." Hers is the epitome of tough love; an American who herself grew up in Kathmandu, she is arming them with the skills and attitude they need to survive and thrive in Nepali society. I left Ama Ghar with the strong conviction that these spirited, bilingual, ambitious kids could very well shape the future of this beautiful, struggling nation.

IMG_1512.JPG On my way home to San Francisco, I stopped through Tokyo to visit my parents. They were moving out of the property our family lived on for 22 years and had a lot of furniture they needed to get rid of. My mother was delighted when a nearby orphanage agreed to take the fridge and kitchen cabinet as donations. We made plans to visit the home and meet the director, who offered to give us a short tour.

We were immediately struck by how large the building was — by Tokyo standards, these 40 kids are living in a palace. The space, the meals, and the children's allowances ($30 a month for each junior high school kid and $55 once they reach high school) are all funded by the ward. These kids come here most often as a result of domestic violence, not poverty or the death of a parent. Currently, there are 30,000 children living in 550 homes like this one across the country, with 3,000 in Tokyo alone. It's a big, growing societal problem.

It was late in the afternoon when we visited the facilities, but none of the kids were around. School uniforms and manga were strewn across the floors of the oversized bedrooms shared by pairs of teenagers. The director, a gentle, large man with thick glasses, told us apologetically that the kids had dropped off their books and gone back out. I asked him if they got along with each other, and he sighed.

"All our children have severe social issues," he said. "They can't stay in the same room together for more than a few minutes before a fight erupts. I've been here for 25 years. Back in the day, it was indeed like a big family; the kids used to go on outings together and take care of each other. But these days, that's not the case at all."

I didn't meet many people at the Japanese children's home. I saw a couple of teenaged boys sitting around a table playing Nintendo DS, and introduced myself to one chubby 13-year old boy who wandered up to the director, imitated him for a few sentences, and then told us he couldn't wait until he was in high school so he could get a bigger monthly allowance.

One might expect the children in the Tokyo orphanage to be happier than the children in Nepal. After all, they have cash, video games, washing machines for laundry, and a huge urban playground to goof around in (the Nepali kids carry no cash, can't afford electronics, and wash their own clothes by hand). But the kids in Tokyo aren't happier. They can't get along with each other, never mind anyone else. There is no semblance of family life at the Tokyo orphanage. It felt like a repository for unwanted children.

IMG_0167.JPG In many ways, Nepali culture of today closely resembles pre-tech revolution Japan. The way the aunties at Ama Ghar prepared food in the kitchen or washed clothes in buckets of cold water reminded me of the way my Japanese grandmother went about her daily chores — it's something about the pacing and the commitment to what may seem like the most menial tasks that made me nostalgic for my childhood. I see many similarities between Japanese and Nepali culture. They're both traditionally patriarchal societies, with heavy Buddhist influences; children are taught to respect and care for elders, and society as a whole values community over individualism. But an unfortunate side effect of economic growth was that some of these cultural values have been compromised — if not ignored outright, they have at the very least become marginalized.

At Ama Ghar, the aunties live and sleep in the same rooms as the children. This type of setup is common in Nepali homes today and was also common in Japanese homes not too many generations ago. At the orphanage in Tokyo, all staff members go home in the evening, except one night a week when they're required to supervise the children on rotation. I believe this makes a big difference in how home-like each of these two places feels to the kids who live there. (An expert in otaku culture once told me that the reason the imouto — little sister — fetish exists is because some men still crave the type of closeness that used to bond Japanese families together.) I believe the disintegration of these kinds of long-held values has something to do with the unhappiness the Tokyo orphanage was sheltering.**

I may never know what created the problematic conditions at the Japanese children's home, but the director's words about the orphanage being a much brighter place a quarter of a century ago made me sad. Maybe the Tokyo orphanage could use a values lesson from its own history or from its counterpart in the developing world.

You can make a donation to Ama Ghar, the children's home in Kathmandu, on the Ama Foundation web site.

*Structurally, it's a lot like an orphanage, but the Ama Foundation doesn't call it that because many of the children still had one or both living parents, and the kids here are not up for adoption.
**After our visit, my mother got a phone call from the director saying that he didn't want our used furniture after all; they were going to get a charity organization to buy them all-new appliances.

(Thanks, Lee Nima Mam Ajq'ij Dr. M.X. Quetzalkanbalam, for your insights!)